Episode 3: Shooter (Part 6)



The bullet hit Bradley in her vest hard enough to knock her over. She hit the floor and ceased to exist. Naomi, Sparks, and Zhang all vanished at the same time.

“The fuck?” Dunn said. For the first time, he sounded spooked.

“Here’s your problem, shithead.” Jeb strode for the door with a wide, predatory grin on his face. “They weren’t real.”

David had tested mimetic vests before he left the military, and shared what he knew with Jeb. All VCD vests had an anti-puppeting safeguard. Any attack from any IFF-linked weapon made Naomi’s entire squad invisible and also blocked their wireless, just in case any of them were being puppeted. Like they had been.

“Bullshit!” Dunn’s voice was higher now, panicked, and Jeb’s claim about this being a pleasurebox was taking hold. Dunn was susceptible to Simulation Disorder.

“You’re deep beneath Corporate One,” Jeb said, sauntering out of the now empty room. “This is all happening inside your PBA, and now it’s going to get real nasty.”

“I shielded my hardlink!” Dunn shouted.

Jeb laughed as he descended the stairs, praying Dunn’s cameras would follow. “I’m coming down to your little room now, and I’m going to do everything you did to Jacob Howard to you.”

He used “your little room” because he knew Dunn had to be in the modest basement. This building was only two floors, and the floor plan he’d reviewed on the way over accounted for them all. The basement was where Jeb would put his security system.

“Prove it!” Dunn shouted. “Change the walls to brick!”

Jeb headed for the back of the building, the best place to conceal a trap door and ladder. “I’m coming for you, Joseph.” He singsonged his voice. “~I’m going to break your fingers, oh! I’m going to break your balls.”

“Change the walls!” Dunn screamed.

The building rumbled and shook. Jeb rushed beneath a door frame as plaster dust fell and pattered on his head. Marquez had just blown the building open, probably with the breaching charge from the VCD’s truck. Sometimes, tech support got out of the van.

Whatever Dunn had done to shield this building from the security blanket wouldn’t work with a giant hole in it. Jeb cranked up his amplifiers and listened for the sound of any door. He detected a soft click from the hall behind him.

He spun and sprinted back the way he’d come. When he spotted the closed door, he stopped and kicked it with his boot. The door flew open with a crack. He stormed inside as Joseph Dunn emerged from the trap door, hair wild and hands raised. Dunn had full body armor, thick boots, and a rifle strapped across his back. He had no helmet.

Dunn shrieked and fumbled for his rifle, but Jeb’s clear circuit algorithms wouldn’t let him actually shoot another human — not to kill them, anyway. Jeb opened his shocker mount and shocked the piss out of Dunn instead. Totally non-lethal.

Boots thumped and people shouted in the hall as Naomi’s squad closed in, finally free of Dunn’s wireless puppeting. Jeb shouldered Dunn’s body and walked out of the room. Weapons surrounded him as a bunch of frantic VCD cops shouted orders.

“Easy, folks.” Jeb patted the top of Dunn’s unconscious head. “I’ve got this one.”

Naomi lowered her gun and grinned. “Dammit, Jeb.”

“What?” He frowned.

She pointed her thumb over her shoulder. “Couldn’t you have shot Zhang?”

* * *


September 11, Just Before Sunrise

“So Melissa Bradley is a member of Team Grindhouse.” Cowan stared at Jeb through a panel in his private simPartment. As it turned out, they didn’t need him after all.

“Yup,” Jeb said. “That’s why Dunn called the VCD. Us interrupting him with LuckyBro made him worried we were closing in, and there was one last cheater he needed to kill before he dropped out of sight forever. VCD Sergeant Melissa Bradley.”

Cowan shook his head. “He wanted to murder her because active military are banned from StrikeForceGo? All this over a shooter?”

“SFGo was Dunn’s life, Cowan. His church. Nemoset, LuckyBro, and sn0wing were shitting all over that, breaking the rules he saw as gospel. They had to be punished, and I think he planned to use the distraction of hacked milsynths to escape.”

“Kind of a bad plan, wasn’t it?”

“Maybe. But he couldn’t have known David and I would figure out his identity. If I hadn’t done that and been there to stop him, things would have gone very differently.”

Cowan couldn’t imagine going through that. “Remind me never to play poker with you.”

“Kid, I’m terrible at poker.” Jeb shrugged.  “But I’ll kick your ass at chess.”

Another panel flashed beside Jeb’s, and Cowan barely avoiding looking. He couldn’t risk Jeb or the OMH finding out what he was doing. They were monitoring him right now.

“Get some sleep,” Cowan said. “You’ve earned it.”

“You too. Thanks for the assist, partner.”

Cowan closed the panel and took a breath. He reclined on his bed, closed his eyes, and activated his sleep loop. Once he was sure the Office of Mental Health was watching nothing but his closed eyelids, he rose, plugged in his hardlink, and dropped into the darkSim.

He swapped to his true avatar: Corvus, a man-sized raven wearing an oversized fez. His eyes glowed a soft red, subtle enough to be cool instead of creepy, and he rarely wore any other avatar in here. On the darkSim, as Corvus, he was kind of a big deal.

He landed on his island in the darkSim — a tropical paradise, filled with coconut trees, surrounded by a sea glistening orange in the setting sun — and opened the blinking panel. The woman who greeted him had bright blue skin, snakes for hair, and a sultry smile that made people weak in the knees. Her name was Medusa Oblongata, and she was one of the best fixers on the darkSim. “I found the scripts you wanted, hot stuff.”

“Both of them?” Cowan didn’t bother to hide the shock in this voice. That was bad news.

He’d first contacted Medusa after he recovered the paralysis script from Sonne’s Sanctuary, and asked her to look for places someone might buy it on the darkSim. He’d been worried Sarah Taggart might have shared her work, but if it was that widespread—

“Your paralysis script, and the synthetic hacking one. I didn’t think those actually existed, but you know me. Tenacious as I am adorable.” She narrowed her eyes. “I gotta’ ask, Cor, because this is some heavy shit. What do you want with these?”

“I want to make sure they don’t hurt anyone I care about.” That was absolutely true.

Medusa linked him the download. “Good enough for me.”

“Thank you.” He could never have tracked down either script on his own, but Medusa had connections he didn’t. “How much did it set you back?”

Practically all of her headsnakes tsked at him. “It’s on me. I still owe you for your help with psycho ex-boyfriend.”

Cowan winced. “You know you don’t owe me for that.” Years ago, one of Medusa’s cyberflings had been a bit too determined to take things to meatspace, and gotten all sorts of obsessive about it. “Let me pay you something.”

“Not an option, love.” She beamed at him. “Let it go.”

Cowan did. “So, who was selling those scripts?” He wanted her to say ‘Sarah Taggart’.

“Some guy named Cisero.” Before disappointment could blossom, Medusa spoke again. “I snagged his transaction list.”

Excitement made Cowan sit up straight. “Who’s on it? Is there an entry for Sarah Taggart?”

“I don’t know why you’re so obsessed with a woman who’s not me, but here. See for yourself.” Another download link appeared beside the one for the scripts. “It’s all there.”

Cowan grabbed both links. “Love you.” He meant that, but only as a friend.

Medusa laughed. “Have fun, Cor.” Her panel closed.

Cowan scanned the list, and then he jumped so hard he almost swallowed his tongue. There was no Sarah Taggart on this list, but there was another name he recognized.


Shit! Galileo had traded a paralysis hack to Joseph Dunn, in exchange for Dunn’s synthetic hacking script. So either Galileo had bought that paralysis algorithm off Sarah — or she’d bought if off him. He knew which made the most sense, and he also knew he’d had it backward. Sarah Taggart wasn’t the person paralyzing people in the Sim.

Galileo was.

So what other scripts had Galileo traded with Dunn? The puppeting scripts Dunn used to hack the VCD, through their HARM switches? The ability to fake Corporate One’s satellite imagery? A monitor script to detect who was cheating in StrikeForceGo?

It didn’t really matter anymore, since Dunn was going to be rewritten soon. Double murder was absolutely a capital crime, and in a few hours, Joseph Dunn wouldn’t exist as a person. Someone new would inhabit his body, instead.

What worried Cowan now was what Galileo’s illicit trading meant for the Sim at large. If he was selling dangerous scripts to desperate people, enabling them to commit crimes far more dangerous and brazen than they could have managed without his help, the Sim could quickly descend into chaos. Now that Dunn’s synthetic hacking script was out there on the darkSim as well, no one was safe, not even in meatspace.

So what was Galileo’s motivation? Money seemed simple, but money didn’t explain him puppeting Sheila Fisher into a shooting rampage. There had to be more at stake here than selling people dangerous scripts, but what? What was Galileo hoping to do?

And how many more innocent people was he going to kill on his way to do it?

* * *

September 12, Early Morning


Kate Lambda reviewed the logs from Sonne’s Sanctuary again. The irregularities from Cowan Soto matched those logged by her father’s pleasurebox the night of the attack. For the first time in a year, she had a lead on the man who had put her father in a coma.

“Opaque,” Kate said, and her top-floor office windows went dark. Drones could be watching her from several kilometers away, through telescopics. Kate dialed Sonne.

A glowing window appeared above her desk. Sonne blinked with bleary eyes, wearing only a nightshirt, which meant she’d been sleeping. Not all that unusual at 0212.

“Is Dad okay?” Sonne asked. Because of course she would ask that, when Kate called her at two in the morning.

“He’s fine, honey.” Kate leaned forward. “I’ve finally got a lead on who attacked him.”

“Then hold on.” Sonne hopped up, walked out of camera view, and came back with a steaming cup of PickMeUp. Kate let her sip and collect her thoughts. Once she was actually awake, Sonne set the cup aside and met Kate’s gaze. “Tell me everything.”

“I’ve been going over the archives from Japanese Teahouse.” Kate had spent the last two hours verifying the data from the night Sonne’s Sanctuary was attacked. “You were right. There’s an anomaly in the archives.”

“I knew that slick shit was lying! Did you find out how the ringu girl paralyzed Cowan?”

“Actually, the ringu girl wasn’t the anomaly.”

Sonne blinked like a cat had jumped on her lap. “What?”

“It was Cowan. His PBA doesn’t read right in the Sim. It’s subtle, but it matches the troll who put Dad in a coma.”

Kate’s father had been paralyzed inside his own pleasurebox, left comatose by a troll who somehow paralyzed him through admin mode. That shouldn’t be possible, yet it had happened again, at Sonne’s Sanctuary. The night Cowan Soto came calling.

Sonne’s hands bunched up. “So Cowan did this.”

“That’s the only part I’m not sure about.”

“You’re losing me, Katie.”

“Just listen. I called in some favors over at Corporate One, accessed classified logs from over a year ago.”


“Cowan wasn’t always with the CID. He used to work at a OneWorld subsidiary, Mind Games, as a PBA engineer. He quit a year ago with a generous severance package.”

Sonne leaned closer. “Hush money?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time. I think they scripted something bad over there, some script OneWorld never wanted to come to light. Maybe it got out somehow.”

“A paralysis script?”

“Why not? Dad was attacked a few days after Cowan quit, and that might not be a coincidence. Maybe he didn’t hurt Dad, but he might have scripted whatever did.”

Sonne turned her mug in her hands. “How’s Dad doing, anyway? I’m sorry I haven’t called. First two simBeds blew out, and then Jennings failed his credit check again—”

“He’s fine,” Kate said. “I mean, as fine as a person in a vegetative state can be. He hasn’t gotten worse.”

“So how do we find out if Cowan’s involved in this?”

Kate tapped her fingers on her desk. “Well…”

“Do we fake a cybercrime?” Sonne asked. “Lure him back to the sanctuary?”

Kate winced, mentally. “Didn’t you tell me you thought he was cute?”

There was a pause. Then, Sonne set down her mug. “So that’s how it is.”

“I wouldn’t ask if there was any other way!”

“You want me to go on a date with the man who may have put our father in a coma.”

“Just so I can see how he’s involved! And besides, you wouldn’t be alone with him. We’d go together, double date. I’ll bring Lucy and you invite Cowan.”

“And then what? We roofie him and poke around his brain?”

Kate smiled her best conciliatory smile. “Maybe?”

“I’ll kill him, Katie. If he hurt Dad, I’ll fucking kill him.”

Kate’s big sister instinct tingled. “Don’t say that! We aren’t killers. We’re doing this to get justice for Dad, not for revenge.”

“Remind me how they’re different?”

“Dad wouldn’t want you getting rewritten.”

Sonne hugged herself. “How do I do this, Katie? Smile at him, flirt with him?”

“Well, honey…” Sonne was going to like this suggestion even less. “You could start by redacting this conversation?”

“Oh.” Sonne relaxed. “I guess that would work.”

“Need me to script an infatuation for you?”

“Nope.” Sonne’s eyes went distant. “I’ve got this.”

* * *

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